catching the buzz.

The famous cities of the world all have their famous buildings, those landmarks so often reproduced on coffee mugs, keychains, and countless other kitsch. Chicago has the Sears Tower, London has Big Ben, and any image of the Eiffel Tower is without a doubt from Paris. And so coming to Wellington, New Zealand, I was introduced to the Beehive, that unmistakable government building whose architectural decisions are often questioned but nonetheless standing for Parliament and the city as a whole. As I walked by it on my first few exploratory walkabouts of Wellington, I, too, grew amused by its peculiar, circular design, the way in which each level grew slightly smaller, like the ever-shrinking layers of a ten-story wedding cake. Practically the entire exterior was glass, and between each window were narrow concrete partitions that jutted out in parallel perfection, giving the appearance of several old slide projectors stacked together.

But what was perhaps most perplexing was not the unique architecture of the Beehive itself, but its proximity to the Parliament House building next to it, whose neo-classical design, whose length and rows of Roman columns – or were they Greek? – gave off such an air of class and elegance, whose marble stone exterior and wide, sweeping stairs – forever the site of wedding photo shoots – were of another era in time. Supposedly the plans had been to continue with this original Edwardian building, first constructed in the early 1900s, extending its classical marble even further. But apparently constrained by both space – there was a major roadway, after all, not far to the right – and money – they ran out, of course – the plans changed and the Beehive came into existence between 1969 and 1979. And as if the juxtaposition of these two buildings weren’t remarkable enough, the Parliamentary Library completes the triad, its cathedral-like cornice work and rose windows standing to the left of Parliament House, a very visible testament to the evolution of architectural design in New Zealand.

I wasn’t content with an exterior view, though – I wanted to see things from the inside out, so I arrived early one Tuesday morning in time for the first free Parliament tour of the day. Passing through a metal detector as if going through airport security, I sent my bag first through an x-ray scan before having to check it behind a counter for the duration of the tour. Thankfully, however, I was allowed to hang onto a notebook and pen, although I felt quite lost without my camera strung around my neck, bumping against my side as I walked. Before the tour began, a security guard asked, “Excuse me, are you just taking notes for yourself?” Although curious to see what he would’ve said if I’d said no, I shook my head enthusiastically in the affirmative. “Of course, Sir, of course.” White lie? Perhaps…

Indeed, I was rather bemused by the reactions the presence of my notebook seemed to engender on the tour. Several fellow participants would remark, “Ah, taking notes, eh?” but I was given no special treatment, no deference, from the tour guide, privy only to the behind-the-scenes information everyone else was. What, then, could I possibly be taking down that was so troublesome, such a cause for concern? It was as if the possibility of permanence was a threat, the chance that what was said wouldn’t be lost on this set of ears; as if ears should be bored, not boring in the sense of “to bore” meaning “to penetrate into the inner or hidden parts of something.” Never trust a notebook, they seemed to say.

So I kept the note-taking to a discrete minimum, foregoing my usual “go-get-‘em” place at front by the guide to lurk in the shadows of the crowd and write. While waiting for the tour to start, I walked around the ground floor of the Beehive, taking in the many items on display. There was a sample of merino wool in one glass case – fitting, I thought – and in another, replicas of wooden canoes and boats from several Pacific Islands, gifts to the Prime Minister to mark a visit to such places as Samoa, Niue, the Cook and Solomon Islands, and then, a model of the world’s oldest ship in the Cairo Museum, the Royal Ship of Cheops, gifted from an Egyptian visitor in 2007. The display seemed to ask “Which one doesn’t belong?” like a children’s quiz you might find on the back of a cereal box.

When the clock struck ten, the group was called together. After the viewing of a ten-minute DVD titled “The Parliament Experience,” our tour guide did a quick survey of the group’s makeup. Well over two-thirds were Kiwis themselves, which was a good thing to see, of course. Other international visitors, although we were clearly in the minority, hailed from such diverse locales as Wales, China, Fiji and Switzerland. The guide, Bob, was an older, bearded man with a distinct American accent, whom I later learned had moved to New Zealand from California in 1971. The Australian couple behind me remarked, “I daresay he’s not a Kiwi,” almost as aghast as I was that the guide of such a distinctive New Zealand institution as their Parliament was led by someone distinctly not a native. It led you to question the credibility of such statements as, “Here in New Zealand, we elect our Parliament based on…” We? Really?

First stop on the tour was the Beehive, which, in all its layered height of 72 meters, is home to the Executive branch of the government. Bob, clearly reaching for humor, found it fitting to say, “Yes, there is someone in charge, not everyone’s on holiday.” Of its ten floors above ground and its four underground floors – which happens to include the National Crisis Management Center, in case of dire national emergencies – the Prime Minister’s office is on the ninth floor and the Cabinet meets on the top. There are seven restaurants spread over three floors in the Beehive, which serve anywhere from 1,200 to 1,500 people a day – 800 on a slow day. Those numbers suddenly put busy days at Vercelli’s in perspective.

As we walked through the Beehive, its circular walls lent the building an elegance not immediately perceived when viewed from the outside. The glass wall of windows on one side complemented the marble on the other, the two curves converging at a point in the distance, with a feel about it that was the product of a sleek design of multi-story ceilings and an open floor plan. An art installation by John Drawbridge featured sets of ten panels each, panels that wrapped around the inner wall of the Banquet Hall and whose designs changed depending on the angle from which you viewed it. It reminded me of the art project in primary school wherein you fold a piece of paper like you might a fan, and draw a different image on either side of the folds. When viewed from the left, you might see a house, and from the right a car.

The idea behind Drawbridge’s work was to imagine the way in which the country might look from the air if you flew from Cape Reinga in the north to Invercargill in the south. He envisioned the changes in shape and color that would occur in the landscape and atmosphere of the country. With this symbolism in mind, no doubt, the Australian man asked Bob about three metal butterflies hanging above another doorway. “Are they symbolic?” he asked as we passed through. “That’s called art,” Bob replied. “There’s lots of art in Parliament.” Well, then…

But from the many-windowed walls of the Beehive I got my first sense of being in the true heart of the country. There was no doubt this was the capital. In one sweeping panoramic view I took in Parliament House, the Parliamentary Library, the National Cathedral, the National Library, Bowen House (home to the MPs’ offices), the Supreme Court, the High Court, the Court of Appeals, the Defense Building – all within a stone’s throw of each other. Wellington is quite the compressed capital city, all the buildings home to the top tiers of its government nestling together as if in a team huddle during a big game, awaiting the next play. And thus the likening of this building, this particular branch of the government, to a beehive made perfect sense. Home to the Queen Bee, in this case, the Prime Minister, it is from the halls of this hive that the nation’s ministers move out to do the nation’s work.

Leaving the Beehive and its executive functions behind, we walked through a connecting hallway to Parliament House, home to the nation’s Legislative branch. The transition between the buildings was easily felt, visibly evident in the change in architecture and interior design which occurred as if moving back in time. The smooth curves of the Beehive gave way to a black-and-white marble checkerboard floor, to a gilded ceiling, detailed plasterwork, stained glass windows, and even the original lift of the building, first installed in 1918, looking more like a suspended iron cage. Bob seemed to be most impressed with how quiet the lift was, telling us “you could even hear pin drop while riding in it.” Another tour member, whose sense of humor was one I could more appreciate, said cheekily, “I think it’s well broken in.”

Parliament House was built to replace the original building, which, having been built first in 1871, was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1907. Although Parliament first met in Auckland in 1854, it soon became clear that the city’s particularly northern location proved too difficult to reach for many of the MPs. Other locations such as Nelson, Picton and Dunedin (which to me would seem to present the polar opposite of the problem, being such a southerly city) were considered, but a set of external commissioners finally settled on Wellington and it was there that the first Parliament Buildings and the Parliamentary Library were built, the latter being opened in 1899. The fire in 1907, however, completely destroyed the Parliament Buildings, and it wasn’t until 1918 that MPs began moving into the new, existing structure. In some twist of history I don’t entirely understand, almost eight decades passed before the building was officially opened by the Queen in 1995,  after the refurbishment was complete.

A chief aim of the refurbishment, which took three years, involved 450 people, 3.5 million man hours, and saw fifteen kilometers of sprinkler pipes installed (aren’t you glad to see they learned their lesson?), was to make the building better suited to handle the threat of a potentially massive earthquake. New Zealand experiences 10,000 to 15,000 earthquakes a year, and Wellington in particular lies only 400 meters from the region’s major fault line. In the basement of Parliament House we viewed an exhibit clearly set up for such tours as ours, one that explained the base isolation system set in place in 1992.

Invented by Dr. Bill Robinson – who went on to win awards and an honorary degree from Victoria University for the design – the goal of the system is seismic strengthening, whereby 400 base isolators, built from rubber, steel, and a lead core, keep the upper building relatively secure whilst an earthquake rocks below the surface, similar to the role of a spring between a car and a tire. With the isolators in place, the remaining sections of the foundation that connected the upper building to the basement were sawed away, creating a 20mm gap between the two parts. Thus prepared for an earthquake registering even 7 or 7.5 on the Richter scale, Parliament House was able to retain its original character while being preserved for the future generations.

Up a staircase, we came to the Maui Tikitiki-a-Taranga…otherwise known as the Maori Affairs Committee Room. In the carvings and weavings on the wall, every Maori tribe and iwi is supposedly represented in the room, the only such place in New Zealand other than at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. Woven into the designs at the front of the room were the three baskets of Maori knowledge, representing peace, prayer, and art. Although important in its own right, it is only one of many committee rooms in Parliament House, the place in which the laws are made and the details hammered out, in which oral hearings take place and your right to freedom of speech couldn’t be more absolute. “And I mean that in the German sense of the word ‘absolute,’” Bob said, although I think only the German-speaking Swiss on the tour might’ve understood what he meant by that.

We wound our way through the building, coming finally to the very heart and soul of Parliament. “Here’s the room,” I overheard many a hushed tone proclaiming in reverence. “Is this it?” they’d ask, their wife replying, “It must be.” A set of heavy wooden doors opened to the Debating Chamber, a two-storied, U-shaped room whose balcony swept over the rows of seats on the first level.  Green carpet with a pattern of golden fleur-de-lis’s stretched out towards the rich wood panels of the walls, original yet refurbished, and your eye was drawn upwards to an arched, stained glass ceiling. Bob explained that the carved wreaths in the paneling commemorating battles from WWI – Samoa, Egypt, Gallipoli, to name a few – and  ferns those from WWII – bearing such names as South Africa, Atlantic, and Pacific – were an unofficial war memorial…but then again, what isn’t it in New Zealand?

Each Member of Parliament has their own green leather seat and locked desk, labeled with their name and party affiliation. As any Kiwi might, several had wool seat covers like you might see in a BMW from the 1980s, even the Speaker of the House. Supposedly, according to the NZ History website, an earthquake in 1990 caused many to follow the emergency instructions you might learn as a child and dive under their desks. One MP, however, apparently hid under a sheepskin rug and another under a pillow. (Several questions arise upon hearing this information. The first being, what protection did they expect to gain? The next, of course, asking why such items were in the chamber to begin with. Never mind, though.) Bob pointed out the Prime Minister’s position, sitting traditionally four seats to the right of the Speaker, and that of the Leader of the Opposition, a balanced four seats to the left. “So this is where the magic happens,” I found myself saying…

No member of the royal family nor the Governor-General, representative of the Sovereign herself, can enter the Debating Chamber. Instead, when duty calls every three years, the Governor-General, brandishing a hefty rod, will bang on the door three times – the notches actually visible in the wood. As it usually goes with these sort of traditions, MPs will feign ignorance as to who’s at the door, as if going along with the joke. When the door is opened, the Governor-General announces, “You are commanded to come and hear the Speech from the Throne,” and so the entire Parliament ups and relocates to an identically shaped room down the hall known as the Legislative Council Chamber, perhaps the only difference being the change from green to red in the color of the carpet. Only one law was passed in this chamber, which was home to the Upper House before it was closed in 1950. Now it is more the stage for Maori-related treaty signings, the meeting of Commonwealth head of states, and even musical performances. Ever the observant one, the Australian man remarked, “I presume there’s a throne hidden somewhere,” which, Bob informed us, there is, on display for public view downstairs.

From Parliament House the tour continued into the Parliamentary Library, the trip back in time stretching even further into the past. The tile floors, made from 13th and 14th century Italian marble, were cut in Stoke-on-Trent in England. The plasterwork was done in Italy and the stained glass, all original from 1899, was designed and installed by Smith and Smith, a New Zealand company founded in 1870. The building was even one of the first in the country to be electrically lit. From the ceiling struts to the stained glass  rose windows, from the mauve walls to the gilded details of the intricate, ivory molding, I couldn’t place just why it all seemed so familiar. I couldn’t, that is, until Bob explained this was the stuff of church architecture, done in the style of Victorian Gothic revival. It then became apparent why I felt as if I’d seen it before. I had, in the churches of England and Europe and even the Christchurch Cathedral on the South Island. Queen Victoria, in a phrase I immediately liked, viewed libraries as cathedrals of knowledge and wanted them constructed accordingly so.

Much like the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., the Parliamentary Library is a research and information library, thus offering limited public access. It’s a resource for the politicians next door and we were thus cautioned to stand away from the doorway, in case of any politician who might come barreling through in desperate need for a quick answer. With thirty kilometers of shelf space and three floors of basement storage, the library can also boast of being the only one in the world to store every newspaper published in the country every day, right down to its smallest regional and local publications. Of course, Bob expressed his theory on the reasoning behind this: “This way, politicians can keep up on the political cartoons parodying them and stay ahead of the jokes.”

Despite its current function, the library is where the first Provincial Chambers were located in 1899. But like its neighbor, Parliament House, the building has unfortunately fallen victim to a number of fires over the years. A series of fires as recent as 1992 have plagued the complex, when in October, one fire wrought serious damage to the library’s main staircase, plasterwork, stained glass and roof. Restorers turned to photographs as a source for original architectural details to recreate after the fire. But another blaze not too long after destroyed several original toilets in the library’s basement. While I wouldn’t think this to be counted too tragic of a loss on the library’s part, I can imagine the ordeal would still exacerbate the government’s struggle to overcome the effects of the first fire.

With the viewing of the library complete, our tour officially came to an end, the last stop being to explore the gift shop from which we could purchase bags of “governmints,” “parliamints,” and “argumints.” “Try not to run out of argumints,” Bob said, leaving us with a final pun to enjoy in pathetic laughter. As I left the building, a bag of parliamints in tow, of course, I looked back on these three emblems of the New Zealand government – the Beehive, Parliament House, and the Parliamentary Library. As disjointed as their architecture appeared to be, it seemed also to serve as a visual reminder of the changes that have taken place over the past century or so. It’s not often architects don’t choose designs that enhance the relation of such buildings to each other, so as awkward as the flow between these three might have been, I found it a welcome symbol of the way in which certain characteristics of the nation’s government work together.

Photo courtesy of Parliament.nz

 

It’s safe to say I caught the buzz that Tuesday morning, getting a taste of the spirit of official matters, of bureaucratic affairs of the nation and the state, and I knew it wouldn’t be long until I had to know more.

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